Promoting Children's Health through Food
For the first time in recent history, kids living in the United States have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the "current epidemic of inactivity and the associated epidemic of obesity are being driven by multiple factors ...and must be addressed likewise on several fronts."
For youth to be truly "healthy," many factors must be addressed, beyond body mass index or level of physical activity. Research by Girl Scouts USA suggest that today's girls place the same value on emotional well-being and self-esteem as they do on diet and exercise. Many programs take this holistic approach to health, focusing on issues such as family life and human relations, mental/emotional health, physical health/disease prevention, substance abuse prevention, bullying, dating and sexuality, eating disorders, and safety.
While there are many different approaches being implemented across the country to promote healthy living for youth, two stand out from their perspective on connecting children to healthy food and the sources of that healthy food.
The Food is Elementary of the Food Studies Institute program educates children about nutrition by providing a positive experience of food and food preparation that is fun, hands-on and sensory-based. Its program is “a unique and vibrant curriculum introduced into schools and communities that teach children about food, nutrition, culture, and healthy living by:
• Educating children about the relationship between food choices and disease prevention
• Encouraging a child's natural curiosity and creativity to be the foundation of learning
• Providing children with the life skill of food preparation through hands-on interactive experience
• Introducing healthful foods through the traditions and arts of different cultures
• Involving families and community in classroom teaching, school meals, gardens, and collaborative mural projects"
The results of this programming are tremendous, demonstrating remarkable success in improving the physical and mental health of children, including:
• The development of preference for fruits, vegetables and whole foods over processed junk foods
• Reduced Body Mass Index and improved general health in school children within just weeks of educational intervention
• A welcomed introduction of plant-based entrees into the school lunch program
• Parents choosing healthier foods due to the influence of their children
• Dramatic improvement in the behavior, mind set and academic performance of troubled teens
The same types of results are being realized in the Rethinking School Lunch program of the Center for Ecoliteracy. The program provides a systems-oriented curriculum that:
• Includes an online Rethinking School Lunch guide, an essay series, "Thinking outside the Lunchbox," technical assistance, grants, and presentations
• Creates a framework for a comprehensive curriculum that integrates campus gardens, kitchen classrooms, school lunch, and a wide range of academic subjects
• Treats childhood obesity, nutrition-related illness, the quality of school lunches, and children’s ability to learn as related issues
• Recognizes that lunchroom experiences (including poor-quality meals, shortened lunch periods, commercial messages, and excessive packaging and waste) can be a "hidden curriculum" that undermines classroom lessons about nutrition and health
• Links schools’ food purchasing decisions, the viability of family farms, solid waste generated by the lunchroom, and the environmental cost of shipping food over thousands of miles
• Offers, through Thinking outside the Lunchbox essays, challenging views by leading thinkers on food and food systems, education, economics, and personal and community health
• Provides a downloadable Model Wellness Policy Guide that provides language and instructions for drafting a Wellness Policy that places health at the center of the academic curriculum
Perhaps when it comes to the health of our children, it makes sense to start with the basics. Does your community have programs that promote the health of youth through food programs? We'd love to hear from you.